“And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all. Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfilment.”- TS Eliot, Little Gidding
It hits like an earthquake or a flash flood, or thunder in a clear sky, this sudden understanding, this making plain of what was obscure. It’s like being hit on the head, the violence and the unexpectedness of the realisation that now, now you understand.
And yet, in the moment also comes a realisation that the chances are you will never be able to explain what you know now and how you come to know it. Everything becomes a metaphor, a finger pointing at the moon.
The first time this earthquake really shook my brain I was nineteen and I’d just had a professor of astrophysics explain the Theory of Relativity to me, quite cordially over a cup of coffee in a senior common room I really wasn’t meant to be in. It had taken about fifteen minutes and when he paused and looked at me to see if I “got” it, the ‘quake hit and I did. I had the sense of my own intelligence being too small, too puny to retain it and relay it back to another person, but for a few seconds I “got” it and it made sense. Then the synapses involved seemed to implode and the fragile connections were lost. But for a short while I understood.
Perhaps I might have understood for longer had my field been physics or even mathematics, but my subjects were English and Latin and I was a sneaky interloper in this world of mad professors and bad coffee.
These last weeks have been full of goodbyes, some permanent and some apparently temporary. I’ve been discovering that I am homeless, in a very real sense, but not the literal one. On Sunday I attended Quaker meeting as I occasionally do. For those who are unfamiliar with it, Quaker worship consists of sitting in silence for an hour and listening to…well, inner thoughts, God, the collective thoughts of all. I don’t know. For me, it’s always been an oasis of peace and time to be, for a short time at least, a part of a greater community. This Sunday, I felt an outsider again. Nobody’s fault; I suspect it’s always been the case. I am unable to commit to being anything other than an occasional attender and on Sunday I realised that while it may be still of benefit, it’s never going to be Home for me.
Yesterday we made an impromptu pilgrimage to Walsingham.
It was unplanned in the sense that we didn’t spend days or weeks deciding we would go, but we went on the spur of the moment. It’s maybe an hour and a half’s drive away, when the traffic is good and it’s been some three years since I last went, I think. Walsingham has been the centre of pilgrimage since 1061, with a break during the Reformation until about seventy years ago when the Well was rediscovered. I’ve always liked the quirky little town in the middle of nowhere near the North Norfolk coast and enjoyed the Anglo-Catholic pomp and ritual, with a small smile of amusement, and I have had great respect for the well itself. The Shrine church is a masterpiece of bad taste and worse art and yet, amid the many flickering candles I used to sense the spirit of the place and of God.
But yesterday, while I enjoyed the visit, it had ceased to be special and meaningful for me. My purpose in visiting had been to touch base with my spirituality and yet, when I was there, nothing. I attended the sprinkling of the waters, drank the waters and was grateful and yet, beyond that, nothing.
When I got home, I remembered the words that had been in my head before we went:
“You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid.” TS Eliot, Little Gidding
That was true enough. I had indeed gone to pray and yet, my purpose in being there was indeed “beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfilment.”- I had come for something and yet, not knowing what it was, truly, even then I had found it was not what I had come for.
I had come for something else. I had come to find something I had believed I would find here and yet, I did not find it. I don’t even know if I can get further than this with my explaining.
“There are three conditions which often look alike
Yet differ completely, flourish in the same hedgerow:
Attachment to self and to things and to persons, detachment
From self and from things and from persons; and, growing between them, indifference
Which resembles the others as death resembles life,
Being between two lives—unflowering, between
The live and the dead nettle.” TS Eliot, Little Gidding
Something has changed in me. I am between two lives.
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.” TS Eliot, Little Gidding
I am the explorer, waiting for my new journey to begin.